Ever wonder why some youngsters approach food as an adventure and others insist on mono-meals of mac 'n' cheese? Turns out kiddie palates don't happen by accident. Studies show that children prefer the flavors they experience early on, including while they're in the womb. A pediatrician is drawing on that research to help get more pregnant and nursing women to eat healthy, varied diets because doing so will make their babies predisposed to eat what's good for them.
According to Alan Greene, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and the author of the new Feeding Baby Green, children can acquire what he calls nutritional intelligence, which will help them choose healthy food later in life. And this intelligence springs from food imprinting, which begins during gestation. "How a child learns to eat is one of the most important health issues in this country," he says. "It's learned behavior."
In his book, which hit stores Oct. 5, Greene paints a vivid picture of the budding foodie in utero. A fetus in the second and third trimester has highly sensitive taste buds that, through "practice meals" of amniotic fluid, get to experience whatever Mom is eating. Fetuses remember flavors from this time in the womb and seek them out after birth. This process explains why adopted infants, when swept off to a new culture, years later innately prefer their native cuisine even though they may never have actually eaten it in the conventional sense, he says.
A study published last year in The Journal of Physiology revealed the long-term effect of food imprinting. In the experiment, half of the pregnant and nursing animals were given a balanced diet of healthy foods. The other half ate some healthy food, as well as a large amount of items laden with sugar, salt and fat.
Scientists found that offspring of the animals who had eaten only the healthy items tended to choose those same healthy items when they became adults. They were also significantly more likely to have normal weight, blood sugar, insulin, triglycerides and cholesterol compared with the junk-food-eaters' offspring, who made less healthy choices as adults and were significantly more likely to be fat.
"This study showed that when mothers eat healthy foods while pregnant and nursing, the metabolism of the offspring is set differently," says Greene.
But he adds that moms whose pregnancy fare was less than stellar can make up for lost ground until a child is about 2½. One way is through breast milk, which contains the good nutrients mothers are eating and provides the variety of flavors that will predispose a child to try new foods, says Greene. Commercial formulas, by contrast, are designed to deliver the same flavor profile day after day.
The baby-food months are also a critical time for food imprinting. Experiencing a flavor about 10 times during this period can make children familiar enough with it to develop a preference for it later on, says Greene. This, unfortunately, includes a predilection for the taste of, say, cooked strained peaches, which does not translate into opting for the raw fruit later on. Why? "Children have already been imprinted with the processed flavor," he says.
Many women grow impatient and stop enticing their fussy tots with new foods before imprinting sets in, says Greene. These moms believe that nutritious, minimally processed baby food is more expensive and more difficult to make than opening a jar of pabulum.
Fortunately, Green has a solution that addresses both issues: portable food mills. Small enough to fit in a diaper bag, these gadgets require just a few turns of a knob to mash up the good stuff moms are (or should be) eating. "It's easier and cheaper than baby food," he says. And once kids naturally gravitate to healthy foods for nourishment, moms can expect to reap a second benefit. "You can forget food battles," says Greene.